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A Significant USCCB Self-Correction

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 23, 2009

Last Thursday’s publication of “A Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission marks a very significant step in the renewal of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The “Note” clarified the doctrinal ambiguities in an ecumenical statement on Catholic-Jewish relations issued under Cardinal William Keeler back in 2002. For several years, Cardinal Keeler had served as the USCCB Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations, overseeing among other things an ongoing dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community in the United States.

There was nothing wrong with publishing the results of that dialogue, which was correctly identified as representing not a “formal position” of the Conference but rather “the state of thought among the participants.” This was enough to give it historical interest. But what was wrong was the failure to publish an official Catholic commentary along with it, a commentary to show that the ecumenical understanding reached by the participants did not fully satisfy the demands of the Catholic Faith.

Because of this failure, the inevitable happened. Theologians started referring to Reflections on Covenant and Mission as authoritative. Still, after all this time the statement could easily have been ignored. That the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs should seek formally to compensate for the statement's weaknesses seven years later is a tribute to how far the US bishops have come in their commitment to Catholic teaching. 

According to the “Note”, the “principal ambiguities in question involved the description of the Church’s mission and, in particular, what evangelization means with regard to the Jewish peopple.” As you would expect, there was a great reluctance to state that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Covenant between God and Israel, and that both individual Jews and the Jewish people as a whole are called to embrace Christ. Granted, the Jewish case is different than that of the gentiles, for the Jews already had a legitimate Divine Revelation when Christ came. Thus while the gentiles were called to accept the Revelation of Jesus Christ without ever living under the Old Covenant, the Jews were called—as it were—to mature into the New Covenant which so gloriously fulfilled the Old.

This reluctance led the Doctrine and Ecumenical committies to find Reflections on Covenant and Mission incomplete, ambiguous and even erroneous on the following five counts:

  1. The document is incomplete and misleading to acknowledge that “Judaism is a religion that springs from divine revelation” in such a way that the “enduring quality of the covenant” is emphasized “without adding that “Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God fulfills both in history and at the end of time the special relationship that God established with Israel.” (#5)
  2. Similarly, the document ought not to have acknowledged “the relationship established by God with Israel prior to Jesus Christ” without adding “a clear affirmation of the Church’s belief that Jesus Christ in himself fulfills God’s revelation begun with Abraham and that proclaiming this good news to all the world is at the heart of her mission.” (#6)
  3. In attempting to define the Church’s mission as broader than an “invitation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ and to entry through baptism into the community of believers”, the document unfortunately develops a vision “in which the core elements of proclaimation and invitation to life in Christ seem virtually to disappear.” An example is the emphasis on evangelization as “a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism”. (#7)
  4. In emphasizing religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and in asserting that the Church does not have a policy that “singles out the Jews as a people for conversion”, the document “fails to account for St. Paul’s complete teaching about the inclusion of the Jewish people as a whole in Christ’s salvation.” For example, St. Paul teaches that when “the full number of the Gentiles comes in…all Israel will be saved” (Rm 11:25-26). (#8)
  5. Moreover, the document “renders even the possibility of individual conversion doubtful by a further statement that implies it is generally not good for Jews to convert, nor for Catholics to do anything that might lead Jews to conversion because it threatens to eliminate ‘the distinctive Jewish witness’.” (#9)

Twenty or thirty years ago such doctrinal clarifications would never have been made. Even seven years ago it was possible to issue the statement without the required doctrinal context. But not any more. If you’re looking for evidence that things are slowly getting better in the Church in America, this “Note” fills the bill. It even flies in the face of political correctness to do it.

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